Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A can of worms

The debacle over MPs expenses has really opened a can of worms in Westminster. As you will have read, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin has tendered his resignation; the first Speaker of the House to do so in 300 years.

In a bid to curb what could become a constitutional nightmare, the Prime Minister announced plans for independent regulators to take over the financial affairs of MPs. The Commons Fees Office, which approved the expenses claims that have brought the political system into gross disrepute, will be abolished.

Gordon Brown said that Westminster would no longer operate like a gentlemen’s club, making its own rules, and said that the moves would change centuries of history for Parliament.

MPs’ pay is set by the Senior Salaries Review Body and a new body will police expenses and enforce discipline.

On an extraordinary day in Parliament:

  • Douglas Hogg, the Conservative MP who claimed for clearing the moat at his country home, became the first MP to announce that he would stand down at the next election. Others seem certain to follow.
  • The future of two Labour MPs, Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, who were suspended over mortgage claims, looked bleak as Labour set up a “star chamber” with powers to kick out MPs found guilty of misconduct. Many Labour MPs face inquiries.
  • Mr Brown also raised strong questions over the future of Margaret Moran, the Labour whip, and Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, criticising their expenses claims as unacceptable.

What amazes me is not the problem itself nor the extent of it; it’s the fact that self regulation in Westminster has been allowed to continue for so long.

What Parliament needs is something similar to OFSTED, the regulating body which the government imposed upon schools. The first visit with inspectors sitting in the House scrutinising performance, analysing every document and questioning every decision would have MPs squirming in their seats.

PS Mr Martin will almost certainly be rewarded for his nine years as Speaker with a peerage. And he will be able to draw a gold-plated pension of up to £82,000 a year.

The sum is made up of a unique Speaker’s perk of half his final salary plus a full Parliamentary pension as he has been an MP for 30 years. That is a damn sight more than I get after 34 years at the chalkface!

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